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From Scott Martin

Lives displaced by war

South Bor, Southern Sudan

In January this year in the national football stadium in the capital of Kenya, Nairobi, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (the CPA) was signed by the late leader of the Sudanese People’s Liberation army rebel movement Dr John Garang and the Vice President of Sudan, Ali Osman Taha, effectively ending more than 20 years of fighting in southern Sudan and raising the hopes of millions of southern Sudanese for a peaceful and stable future in their homeland.

The signing of the CPA also marked the beginning of the return of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese living in displacement camps within Sudan or having fled cross the border to refugee camps in Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond.

One of these I met recently in South Bor, in southern Sudan, is James [not his real name] who had just returned home for the first time in 19 years. 

James was 12 years old when he and most of his friends, children aged from 9 to 12 years of age, were ‘mobilised’ by the local authorities to trek half way across the hot vast plains of Africa’s  largest country to seek refuge from the escalating civil war in southern Sudan and attend school in Ethiopia.

James was part of a large group of children numbering in their thousands who walked through the bush for six weeks accompanied by one local Chief. This was in 1987 and James was not to see his family again until February this year. Along the way, dozens of children died from illness, weakened by hunger, thirst and the necessary constant exertion of the trek. Many more drowned trying to cross rivers, unable to swim but having to attempt the crossings. Some were unlucky enough to stumble onto landmines and yet others were attacked and eaten by wild animals, in front of their companions’ eyes.

The children who made it finally settled into school in Ethiopia for three years, a time of settled but only too short-lived calm. Then, war broke out between Ethiopia and its neighbor Eritrea

For the children, this meant they were on the move again.

They fled to Pochalla on the Sudan–Ethiopia border where they scratched an existence for seven months before Pochalla was taken by Sudanese Government troops as a part of the internal Sudanese conflict.

That meant a move further south. The walk south from Pochalla is through extremely inhospitable land. The children - numbering in their thousands – once again had their numbers further depleted by hunger and thirst, the harsh conditions taking their toll on this month long trek through the desert. What was even more traumatic was the brutal slaying of many by a hostile local tribe as they passed through their land, as well as the regular attacks by lions and other predators who found the weakened children easy prey.

What remained of the group eventually arrived in Kapoeta where they were trucked on to nearby Narus about 25 km from the Kenyan border. After enjoying the relative safety of Narus for three months, Kapoeta fell to Government troops so the children trekked overnight to Lokichoggio in northern Kenya to escape the fighting and, after a few days, were transported a further 100km to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.

James was now 17 years old and had already traversed huge tracts of some of the most risky and difficult land on earth. He had endured more hardship, lost more friends and witnessed more violence than anyone could imagine.

Life in Kakuma was very difficult for the then 20,000 or so mostly Sudanese refugees living there. Violence between the different ethnic and political factions in the Sudan conflict was mirrored in the camp. Alcohol, sexual and domestic abuse were common. Scorpions, camel spiders and snakes threatened, often inflicting severe pain on unlucky people in the camp. Worst of all, was the lack of opportunity and resources within the camp to provide useful activities for the refugees.

In 1994 after three years in the refugee camp, James decided to go back to Sudan with the idea of returning home and visiting his family. He made it only as far as the Eastern Equatorial region of southern Sudan, bordering Kenya, where he joined the ranks of the rebel movement. Electing to play a role as a non-combatant he spent four years with the rebels until he was released on health grounds, having suffered recurrent bouts of malaria and typhoid.

Deciding that in his weakened state it was better to return to the basic services of Kakuma than risk the arduous journey through the war zone to Bor, James hitched rides back to Kenya. Back in Kakuma several opportunities did come his way: Jesuit Refugee Services offered him training in trauma counseling and he undertook a UN-sponsored course in agriculture.

In February this year, shortly after the signing of the CPA, James made his own way back home. Like so many of the southern Sudanese returning to rebuild their lives in post war Sudan, he arrived with nothing. He found his mother and three siblings okay but sadly his father had been killed some years before by a Government soldier.

He arrived to a society demoralised and impoverished by the two decade long civil war: “I saw the lives of our people are very behind,” he said, his disappointment thinly veiled. “I will try and change the community.”

James’s joy at being home with his family is evident but it is tempered by the realisation that there is a lot of work to be done in Sudan. The signing of the peace agreement hasn’t repaired 20 years of damage to communities and infrastructures in Sudan. This will take massive amounts of money and work as well as time.

James is hopeful that he will soon be employed, ideally by one of Caritas Australia’s partners in Sudan: “To teach this community is hard but we have to try our best, particularly with regards caring for the natural environment.”   

For the first time in most people’s memories there is peace in southern Sudan. No indiscriminate bombing of civilians by Government aircraft. No threat of fighting to displace, maim or kill the people. There is peace, optimism and the realisation that the road ahead rebuilding southern Sudan’s communities will be a challenging one.

Scott Martin is Caritas Australia’s Partnership Development Coordinator based in Nairobi. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Spring edition of Caritasnews, the newsletter of Caritas Australia. It begins a new fortnightly format in Online Catholics called “Foreign Correspondence”.

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